India - Qawwali Music

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Qawwali Music

The word Qawwali is derived from the Arabic word qaol which means the axiom or the dictum. It is a traditional form of Islamic songs mainly includes the dictums of the prophets and praises of god.

It is closely linked to the spiritual and artistic life of northern India. It is also linked to the Sufi tradition which strives to attain truth and divine love by direct personal experience. All Muslims believe that man is on a path to God (tariqah).

The Koran instructs man to remember God. This remembrance, known as dhikr, may be either silent of vocal. The qawwali may be viewed as an extension of the vocal form of this remembrance. The use of music as a spiritual force was discussed in great length by al-Gazali.

In qawwali, the words are sung, quite repeatedly with variations intended to bring out deeper means of the lyrics. Later, there is a repetition to the extent that the words cease to have a meaning. At this situation the participant moves to the state of spiritual enlightenment or the fana.

The qawwali has its origin in the birth of Muhammad. It was only in the time of al-Gazali that the principles of qawwali were refined and codified which were later expanded by the Chisti School of Sufism. Amir Khusru was also an important person responsible for the development of qawwali. He is also said to be the inventor of this form. It is said that he mixed the various musical elements from turkey, greater Persia and India together.

The qawwali in India was propagated by the Chisti School. This School was established by Khwaj Moinuddin Hasan Chisti born in Sijistan. He was influenced by several saintly men, including ibrahim qahandazi, and sheikh abdul qadir jilli. He brought this gift to India.

Another follower of the Chisti School, Sheikh Nizanuddin Auliya also came to Delhi to instruct the people about the importance of qawwali. He also acquired a reputation for using music in his orthodox Islamic elements in Delhi. He is still the source of inspiration for countless people.

In the Moghal Empire, the qawwali stayed along with its counterpart bhajan. The degree of cross influence is so great that some musician / saints such as kabir are to this day revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. The tradition of qawwali had numerous ups and downs.

Aurangzeb was known for his Islamic fundamentalism and the liberal traditions of the Sufis were not well received by this emperor. He took the fundamentalist injunction against the music very seriously.

The qawwali songs are mostly in Urdu and Punjabi. There are several songs even in Persian, Brajbhasha and Siraiki, apart from Chhote Babu Qawwal songs in Bengali. The Qawwalis are classified by their content into several categories.


It is a song in praise of Allah. Traditionally, a qawwali performance starts with a hamd.


It is a song in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. The hamd is traditionally followed by a naat.


It is a song in praise of either Ali or one of the Sufi saints. Interestingly, these are sung at both Sunni and Shi'a gatherings.


It is a lamentation over the death of much of Ali's family in the Battle of Karbala. It is sung only at Shi’a concerts.


It is a secular song which features an exquisite poetry.


It is a song in Punjabi which is in the unique style of poets such as Shah Hussain and Baba Bulleh Shah.


It is a song where the singer expresses his thanks to Allah through a variety of linguistic techniques. It is often sung in Farsi and Mawlana Rumi is credited as its inventor.

The popular qawwali singers are Aziz Mian Qawwal, Bahauddin Qutbuddin, Mohammad Saeed Chisti, Munshi Raziuddin, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri brothers, Badar Ali Khan, Fareed Ayaz, Mehr Ali Sher Ali, Mohammad Saeed Chisti, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Rizwan-Muazzam.


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